What is Mythology? (Part 6)

In Part 5 I tried to be a bit more straightforward in my definition of mythology. Being straightforward is kind of a drag, and if all you ever did was sit around creating, compiling, and arguing definitions, after four years I would deem you educated.

Here are three more definitions of “mythology” I use in my course, all written by prominent mythologists:

1)  Joseph Campbell, from The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

Mythology is psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology. Their function is to serve as a powerful picture language for the communication of traditional wisdom.

As I previously discussed with the notion of “myth-as-fugue,” here and here, myths definitely contain elements of biography, history, and cosmology, among other things. However, you wouldn’t want your understanding of Sumerian history to rely entirely (or even largely) on The Epic of Gilgamesh. History is referenced, but not accurately. Historical fact is, in part, the basis for some of what happens in the epic. It’s just transformed into literature and fantasy, a bit like those made-for-TV-movies that used to be so popular. Though, I should note, the idea of understanding history as a collection of verifiable facts is a relatively recent concept. It’s not that those compiling the myths of Gilgamesh were bent on distorting history (although political agendas may have been driving them).

George-Lucas-and-Joseph-Campbell

Instead, the recalling and recreating of myths in the present in order to continue the power and promise of the ancestors probably kept history alive in a way that blurred our linear notions of how events unfold. Accuracy in fact and reason did not hold the kind of sway that a direct experience of divine powers did. Once you begin to view the ancient and classical world through their primary values, you have to change your categories of understanding. Myths were not subjected to fact-checkers. The myths were plainly factual each time they were enacted and retold. They succeed via their power to produce effects on the participants. Their truths was blindly obvious, as obvious as the cycle of seasons.

It was, in fact, the movement of time in these cycles that held more sway than any notion of linear history. If the rites were performed and the fertility gods responded, with rain, with floods, with storms, with a good crop, then the facts were readily apparent. We don’t view causation or time this way today, nor did people run around discussing the psychological themes in myths as if they could somehow be teased out and isolated from the performance of the myth in its entirety.

What then does Campbell mean by equating mythology with psychology. If we grant that psychology confronts the psyche and perhaps the soul (as opposed to merely treating problematic symptoms, as a psychiatrist does) then Campbell is rightly claiming a role for mythology that is not occupied by other fields.

Mythology reminds us what it is to be human. It is, in Campbell’s words, a mirror that reflects aspects of our being we often forget or try to oppress. When we read mythology, we can be forced to ask questions about fate, the meaning of life, or deeply held beliefs and emotions. Mythology often recounts the human journey in ways that refuse dissection and classification. It returns us to one of those fundamental questions that are not answerable directly (which is why they are not scientific questions). What am I suppose to do? Who I am? Why does anything exist at all? What is the story of my life? Am I being called to transform my life?

In many ways, similar to other forms of literature, mythology induces reflection, an exploration of the interior spaces. It is perhaps the root of all literature, and therefore more of a radical enabler of reflection.

2) William Irwin Thompson, from The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light:

Myth is the history of the soul.

Thompson sets the history of the soul in opposition to the history of the state, of war, of economics, and technology, or, in other words, the usual markers of history. But what exactly is the history of the soul? It is best to simply refer to a larger context of this quote, which appears numerous times in Thompson’s masterpiece, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light:

William Irwin Thompson NYC Gates 279__Under_the_Gates,_Central_Park,_2005_Photo_Michele_LaporteMyth at the level of understanding of the Age of Heroes is symbolic or figurative, but the world is still divided. Level IV is the unitive state of the great mystics; it is a state of being, analogous to music, in which myth is not simply a description, but a performance of the very reality it seeks to describe. Here history becomes the performance of myth, for the experience of recalling (anamnesis) enlightens the individual to see that myth is the history of the soul. The ego is locked into a narrow time frame (Plato’s cave), and so experiences from the other dimensions of the soul are recast into the forms and imagery of the ordinary world, but in the experience of illumination the ego realizes that the narratives that seem to be saying one thing are saying much more. (Page 6)

History is an illusion, or at least a narrow depiction of reality which filters out the pure, direct light or reality and presents a shadow play. Myth alone records the non-linear history of the soul, a history which is constantly denied or forgotten, or just extremely difficult to record. In fact, it has largely gone untold, passed along orally, transmitted in secret, available only to initiates. Myth captures some of this, but must be unlocked to be believed. Thompson’s emphasis on performance reminds us how much of our artistic knowledge is not directly explicable. You must see the painting, hear the music, read the poem. Talking about it or trying to use explanatory language around the edges of an artistic performance might provide insight, but it will always be a secondary, filtered experience.

3) Karen Armstrong, from A Short History of Myth:

Karen-Armstrong-Spiritual-QuestWe have imagination, a faculty that enables us to think of something that is not immediately present, and that, when we first conceive it, has no objective existence. The imagination is the faculty that produces religion and mythology. ….But the imagination is also the faculty that has enabled scientists to bring new knowledge to light and to invent technology that has made us immeasurably more effective. ….Like science and technology, mythology, as we shall see, is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.

This quote would have seemed silly perhaps fifteen years ago. No one took imagination seriously then. Something has changed, however, and creativity and imagination are no longer confined to kindergarten classrooms and New Age workshops. In fact, they’re probably in danger of being abused by corporate America and drained of meaning by one too many TED talks extolling their virtues. The early creators of myths were the first “out-of-the-box” thinkers, I suppose. Maybe the Australian aboriginals will start appearing on “Think Different” posters.

Anyway, I deeply appreciate Armstrong’s use of the term “imagination” as a kind of visionary capacity for creating culture and new perspectives for exploring the vital questions of our being. It also stands as a reminder that many of our key scientific advances began as dreams, hunches, intuitions, and flights of fancy. Perhaps mythological imagination is the creative ground out of which the arts and sciences arise.

Advertisements

What is Mythology? (Part 5)

In Part 1, I attempted to explain the complexities of the term “myth” and the difficulties of defining it. Largely, this was a riff on the contemporary understanding of “myth” as “false,” as in, “It’s a myth that turkey makes you sleepy.” (Which is true, by which I mean that you get sleepy on Thanksgiving because you’ve eaten too much, have the day off work, and started drinking wine at 11:00 in the morning just to deal with your extended family, not because of the relatively minuscule levels of tryptophan* in the turkey)

Instead, I’ll be more direct. Here is the working definition of mythology I use in my classes: Mythology is the study of stories exploring fundamental mysteries of existence, especially those pertaining to the following three questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

I borrowed these questions from Paul Gauguin’s painting of the same name, “Where Do We Come From? What are We? Where are We Going?”

where

I then use each question as a separate unit of study: Where Do We Come From? (creation myths) What are We? (mainly epic tales)  Where are We Going? (This third unit can cover apocalyptic narratives and stories of the afterlife, but I also use it as an opportunity to discuss the potentially oxymoronic “Contemporary Mythology,” as well as narratives we use to imagine the future, especially futurism, science fiction, and technological utopianism, about which I’ve recorded a lecture and written an article.)

The majority of the texts we cover in my Mythology course fit comfortably into the standard canon (indeed, my central textbook, World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics, is printed by McGraw Hill) but I like to define the term so that texts and ideas beyond just the ancient and classical world can be explored.

This leads me to three misnomers about Mythology, which correspond to the categories of Geography, Time Period, and Purpose. Some of this is addressed in my video “Contemporary Mythology.”

1) Geography. In-coming students often assume that mythology comes primarily from Greece, Rome, and wherever Norse is. This is not their fault. America’s educational heritage comes from Europe. American and European literature mainly references myths from these cultures. These myths have been translated more frequently. More texts have survived, and so on. When you look at them on a world map, however, they don’t even account for 1% of the world’s land mass. Myths can be found in every culture, on every continent (well, not sure about Antarctica), and from every religion. (In Part 7 I will discuss the difference between religion and mythology.) Why not explore mythology on a global scale. For centuries it was believed that Homer’s epics were the oldest on the planet, until The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian text which predates Homer by 1300 years, was discovered. The myths of the West are wonderful, but it’s a big world.

2) Time Period. Mythology is not something that simply stops with the later versions of King Arthur in the 15th century. It’s something we do each and every day. We will continue making myths because this is what humans do best. It makes perfect sense to spend most of the semester reading the canonical myths, from Gilgamesh to Arthur, with stops at every civilization along the way. However, it would be a mistake to assume that mythologizing (the verb form, which simply means to create somewhat exalted stories out of reality) was just something that pre-scientific people did when Wikipedia was not around to provide the answer. In fact, I would argue, we create myths every time we come home and answer the question, “How was your day?” or every time we return from vacation or fishing trips. Mythology is a living field of study. Mythological figures emerge from celebrity culture, sports, and politics on a daily basis. John David Ebert’s film criticism is a great examples of this practice. Furthermore, the myths of the past are alive today in exciting ways. When you see someone gazing lovingly into his glowing screen of social media, you are witnessing the living Narcissus.

3) Purpose. I couldn’t tell you for sure why students sign up for Mythology courses. I do believe a good many have a genuine interest in the subject and find the myths they have heard to be compelling and mysterious and out-of-the-ordinary. Some want to have fun (as much fun as a college course can be, which is to say slightly above mowing the yard). Others may anticipate an easy grade. All of the above might be true, but I believe the purpose of mythology is to reconnect with the mysteries of life and to achieve a sense of wholeness. I can’t grade on such a standard, but it’s no accident that Joseph Campbell quickly found himself transitioning from English professor to something like a self-help workshop guru. This is not a path I want, but it does demonstrate the power of myth (to borrow the title of a wonderful book and interview series Campbell did with Bill Moyers).

Finally, I take great pains to emphasize one key portion of my definition, which is that myths explore mysteries; they do not explain them. Certainly if some portion of a myth takes an actual stab at explaining how giraffes developed long necks and concludes that a crocodile bit down on a giraffe’s head one day and stretched the poor creature out, then we should not deny the place of contemporary science to object.

I do not believe, however, that myths were merely an early attempt at science. Nor do I believe that science can do everything that myths can do. In fact, any good scientist will tell you there are certain questions that are not theirs to ask. Some of these are mythological questions.

*First, I should point out that WordPress wanted me to spell “tryptophan” as “Aristophanes,” which is hilarious to me and five other people. Second, dozens of foods you probably eat each week have more tryptophan in them than turkey. Do you say, “Man, this tryptophan is making me sleepy!” after eating a ham sandwich? No? Then be silent. I’m trying to watch the Lions game.

What is Mythology? (Part 1)

2001 Space Odyssey (08)

Mythology is not a canon of lies, though it is never true.

Or at least the products of mythological thinking are not true. Stories never are. Even true ones. Non-fiction is impossible.

A myth, then, is the lie that emerges from truth. And since you can’t tell the truth with the truth (you can’t contain water with water), lying is the only way to go. Build a dam. It will hold for a little while.

Let’s start over. No, really start over: let’s say two million years ago. Dates may vary. Remember, I am telling a story.

The first archaic humans begin to develop something that resembles symbolic reasoning. Perhaps this started much earlier with bands of apes requiring communication and planning to ward off other scavengers who were physically superior. The human race, it is known, clawed its way to the top of the food chain from the lowest rung: sucking marrow out of sun-dried bones picked clean by the stronger predators.

(This is probably where the myth of the self-made man comes from, he who pulled himself up from the bone yard to the captain’s logos.)

This is precisely the point. Once you devlop the ability to recreate what you saw at the watering hole using signs and evocative grunts, you can coordinate. Language was our most important survival tool.

But let’s not tell all of human history as if physiological need explains it. (There is no time for a tangent on bonobos and sexual politics.) Don’t you think that once the beasts were driven off, and the proto-humans had secured their meat, and they sat around newly plump and full of ideas, that perhaps they practiced their powers of communication, first planning the next day (for with language comes conception of the future) and, languid with food and brimming with strange identifications, began to discuss the stars and, some day, their own demise.

2010225142410193

None of this happened over night. It is still happening. Perhaps history has not moved forward from the first moments when human experience began to be externalized in symbols, images, and words. We began telling stories, none of them true.

The Dawn of the Lie was born, and we were ejected from true history, straight out of time into endless digression.

But the ant tells stories. The ant teaches, organizes, coordinates, steals. Lies. (What is the mythology of the ant?)

The Big Bang is a lie. It is true as myth. It has only existed as story. The story is pointing to the truth, which is true, I suspect, though the story is not. Science is a myth. Some myths are better than others.

Take me there and I will believe, jettison all stories, curl up in the question and die. In the meantime, tell me lies.

Myths explore; they do not explain, for what the best myths are attempting to explain can never be explained.

Take the famous philosophical question, “Why is there something instead of nothing,” or, in Heidegger’s simplification, “Why the why?”

This is unsolvable using language, using rational explanation. Perhaps because it is a language trick. Perhaps because knowing the answer would require empirical data unavailable to us. Perhaps because we’re not God. Perhaps because there is no God. Perhaps because God doesn’t go by that name anymore and is instead taking a vacation doing the backstroke through the waters of your right eye.

Mythology, I believe, began with a recognition, a feeling suggested by Heidegger’s question, the weirdness of being, you could say. Why is anything here, and how strange that I am awake to perceive it. What is this?

It’s not really a question at all, and it has no answer. Feeling it deeply enough is the verification of truth, but once we set out to explore and explain using language, we fail. Mythology is beautiful failure. Weird stories attempting to return you to the simple feeling of being weirded out by life and consciousness.

What does any of this mean? Don’t give me an answer (there aren’t any). Give me a myth.

It has been argued that the Dreamtime myths of aboriginal Australians represent the oldest living mythology, dating back 40,000 years. But of course, any mythology based on dreams can only come secondary to myths exploring the waking world. One would have to develop waking consciousness first in order to shine some light into the unconscious state of sleep. Once the language acquired to survive during the day penetrated sleep, some dreams were pulled back out for study.

Though I may have this backwards. Perhaps symbols from deep in the Unconscious slowly made their way to the surface, and this was the dawn of human consciousness. After all, didn’t life emerge from the ocean? Doesn’t the sun come up from the Underworld?

red-book-4

Many of the earliest myths were developed to explain what, to us, is now explainable: what is the sun? What is the moon? What is a thunderstorm? But even before these questions rests the question, “Why the Why?” It was the dawn of self-reflective consciousness itself that gave birth to mythology, not as an incidental by-product, not simply as an evolutionary necessity (tell stories or die!), but as a new reality, as the only reality.

Myth, it turns out, is the only thing that is real.

Reality is a lie.

Lies are the only form of truth.

Mythology is the truest lie available.

Reality is a myth.

Myth is real.

Dan Willingham: Learning Styles Don’t Exist

The MOOC is a Modern Marvel for the 1950’s Company Man!

Today’s Company Man has to know certain things in order to please the boss and keep the organization running smoothly. Gee whiz! These MOOC’s sure are nifty. Simply punch the right buttons from the comfort of your home!

The MOOC is the perfect tool for the booming 1950’s economy. It should help the United States launch the next Sputnik or program the world’s first computer that can fit inside your garage (but leave your Chrystler parked on the street!)

And think of how we will expand university enrollment! Heck, with that G.I. Bill and a little elbow grease, you will climb the ladder at IBM or NASA and helping to build today’s technological wizardry: satellites, washing machines, and motorized golfing transporation devices!

I’ll bet you didn’t think getting an education would be as simple as watching a few videos and taking a multiple choice exam! Well, it is!

And did I mention that it’s free! (Don’t worry, it’s not a communist conspiracy! But those Red spies will sure be shaking when they find out how advanced our education system has become. Whiz bang!)

MOOC wants YOU! Help the 1950’s become the greatest decade yet! Man your stations and let the MOOC help you become today’s Company Man!

The Teaching-Learning Paradox

In an earlier post, I discussed the Educator’s Catch-22, which demonstrates the absurdity of trying to teach intrinsic motivation in environments (i.e. schools) built on extrinsic motivation.

Now, in order to advance your suffering: say hello to the Teaching-Learning Paradox, first coined in a 1968 study by Robert Dubin and Thomas Taveggia who set out to compare a variety of teaching methods. Here is their key finding:

No shred of evidence was found to indicate any basis for preferring one teaching method over another as measured by the performance of students on course examinations. Underlying all theories concerning the efficacy of one teaching method over another is an implicit model of how teaching and learning are linked. However, we really do not know what the linkage is. The need for establishing clear and unequivocal links between a theory of learning and a theory of teaching is a vital one.

If you’re not following Rubin and Taveggia’s academic-ese, they’re really saying there is no way to determine which teachings methods are better than others. Furthermore, they admit there exists no clear connection between teaching and learning. When someone learns, we have no way of knowing what, if anything, the student’s progress had to do with the teacher or the teaching method.

Though this study was authored almost 45 years ago, the riddle has not yet been solved. We seem to agree that learning happens; we’re just not sure how.

This is a bit like developmental psychologists who claim to be clueless as to how developmental leaps occur. Changes can be charted and measured, but their cause is mysterious.

Adding to the confusion is the constant call for individualized instruction to appeal to a variety of learning styles. This is all Howard Gardner’s fault, I believe.

Here’s what we’re left with: everyone learns differently, but we don’t know how. Teachers can all teach differently, but it won’t make a difference because students will still learn, but we don’t know how. Different styles, strokes, folks, and so on.

I’ve as I’ve written elsewhere, learning can happen anywhere, at anytime, for any reason. We just don’t know why or how. Is that so bad?

You can dissect a frog, but not a mystery.

The Psychology of Apocalypse

The world will not end in 2012. I tell you why.